Turkey: Gay, religious and secular women raising their voices in solidarity

Women’s Day in Turkey: A manifestation of the unity that embraces diversity.

Right before Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day, Turk­ish State Min­is­ter for Fam­i­ly and Wom­en’s Affairs, Sel­ma Aliye Kavaf, made con­tro­ver­sial com­ments on morals and val­ues in Turkey dur­ing her speech to a high­ly ranked nation­al newspaper.

Argu­ing that homo­sex­u­al­i­ty is a dis­ease which can be treat­ed, Kavaf con­tin­ued with crit­i­ciz­ing the polit­i­cal stand­ing of some fem­i­nist NGOs in Turkey. She stat­ed that vio­lence against women is some­times so exag­ger­at­ed by cer­tain NGOs that they per­ceive it as a form of psy­cho­log­i­cal vio­lence when a hus­band asks her wife for food. Final­ly, Kavaf expressed her irri­ta­tion by some soap operas which have explic­it kiss­ing scenes. 

These shock­ing com­ments mag­ne­tized sev­er­al reac­tions from LGBT (les­bian, gay, bisex­u­al, trans­gen­der) orga­ni­za­tions, human rights orga­ni­za­tions, artists, and many oth­er intel­lec­tu­als. One orga­ni­za­tion recent­ly filed a crim­i­nal com­plaint against the min­is­ter. I argue that one of the most pow­er­ful respons­es was giv­en to the min­is­ter dur­ing the demon­stra­tions of Women’s Day in the cities of Ankara and Istanbul. 

March 8 cel­e­bra­tions in Ankara. The ban­ner says: — In the 100th anniver­sary of Wom­en’s Day, we are get­ting stronger, chang­ing with strug­gle. (pho­to: Eda Acara). 

This year on the 8th of March, when Women’s Day was cel­e­brat­ed all over Turkey, a group of peo­ple attract­ed my atten­tion as I was watch­ing some videos cap­tured dur­ing the cel­e­bra­tions. The group belonged to the Women’s Plat­form which unites dif­fer­ent women’s ini­tia­tives and orga­ni­za­tions. Instead of scream­ing out cliché slo­gans with fixed tone of voice, they use some sort of a humor­ous but polit­i­cal­ly crit­i­cal way of protest­ing. For instance, a group of women with­in this plat­form sing one of the famous songs from the 1970s named “I born free, I live free” (hür doğ­dum, hür yaşarım) while jump­ing on the streets to the lyrics. So, there was this girl who cov­ered her­self with her rain­bow flag, while singing loud­ly, arm in arm with a veiled woman: 

Why does this liar world keep lim­it­ing me? Who the hell are you inter­fer­ing with my life? I was born free, I live free, it is none of your busi­ness, I am not slave to you. My mis­take, my life, it is none of their busi­ness, go do your own busi­ness, don’t inter­fere with my life.

Anoth­er scene that cap­tured my atten­tion was when a sec­ond group of peo­ple were all sit­ting on the street with their lit­tle hand-made drums (emp­ty cans prob­a­bly filled with lentil, rice, small stones) and whis­tles. One of them was stand­ing and shout­ing “Make noise against het­ero­sex­ism, make noise against fas­cism, make noise against cap­i­tal­ism.” Sud­den­ly, every­body was shout­ing, whistling, play­ing those drums, right before they slow­ly stood up and shout­ed “Anoth­er world is pos­si­ble”. It is quite fas­ci­nat­ing to see the uni­ty and sol­i­dar­i­ty of that group of women with diverse backgrounds.

Through­out this short essay, I will try to intro­duce the dynam­ics of the main­stream women’s move­ment in Turkey and argue that this women’s plat­form might be an indi­ca­tor of a new epoch for this movement.

The Turkish Modernization Process: Making the Public Sphere Available for Women

First of all, I will give a brief sum­ma­ry of the Turk­ish Mod­ern­iza­tion process as many of the reforms con­cern­ing women were intro­duced dur­ing that peri­od of time. 

Since the estab­lish­ment of the Repub­lic in 1923, Turkey has gone through a process of west­ern­iza­tion, sec­u­lar­iza­tion and nation­al­iza­tion; i.e., the com­po­nents of what is often defined as the mod­ern­iza­tion project (Sak­tan­ber, 2002, p.20). Women were regard­ed as an impor­tant part of this whole process. As a part of the ‘sec­u­lar­iza­tion’ process, women were aimed to be freed from the con­straints of reli­gion and turned into cit­i­zens of the young repub­lic. The Swiss Civ­il Code was adopt­ed in 1926 and women’s suf­frage was intro­duced in 1934 which can both be regard­ed as the major reforms (see addi­tion­al sources under Ref­er­ences below). 

Adop­tion of The Swiss Civ­il Code guar­an­teed all Turkey’s cit­i­zens equal rights before the law, regard­less of their lan­guage, reli­gion, race and gen­der. The most impor­tant aspect was the ‘sec­u­lar­iza­tion’ of the legal sys­tem. In terms of women’s rights, the law guaranteed: 

  • Equal­i­ty between men and women with­in family
  • ‘Offi­cial’ state mar­riage as the only ‘legal’ mar­riage (reli­gious mar­riage is not legal­ly rec­og­nized in Turkey)
  • Abol­ish­ment of polygamy
  • Equal­i­ty between men and women regard­ing the issues of divorce, mar­riage, inher­i­tance and wit­ness­ing in trials

The civ­il code was revised and approved in 2001 and came into effect on Jan­u­ary 1, 2002 (see fur­ther infor­ma­tion.)

The rights that were giv­en to women, how­ev­er, have not con­tributed to a total free­dom of women from tra­di­tion­al con­straints. The young repub­lic was ini­tial­ly an author­i­tar­i­an and cen­tral­ized regime which implic­it­ly con­strained the orga­ni­za­tion of any sort of civ­il soci­ety. Claim­ing that women had been pro­vid­ed full equal sta­tus with men and here­with did not need any spe­cif­ic orga­ni­za­tion, the gov­ern­ment shut down the Turk­ish Women’s Union in 1935 (described in an arti­cle by Şirin Teke­li on Turkey’s Wom­en’s Move­ment). It is pos­si­ble to say that women were tried to be inte­grat­ed into the pub­lic sphere where the bound­aries were rigid­ly defined by the state. Accord­ing­ly, women were expect­ed to appre­ci­ate the cit­i­zen­ship rights that were offered to them. 

State-designated Image of the ‘Modern’ Woman in Turkey

The para­dox­i­cal oper­a­tion of the mod­ern­iza­tion process in rela­tion to the sta­tus of women can fur­ther be eval­u­at­ed accord­ing to the state-des­ig­nat­ed image of women. The socio-polit­i­cal struc­ture of the Ottoman Empire was very tra­di­tion­al and reli­gion was an impor­tant part of the orga­ni­za­tion of every­day life. In this sense, talk­ing about women’s cit­i­zen­ship rights and offer­ing them access to the pub­lic sphere under the ‘mod­ern­iza­tion project’ was sen­si­tive top­ics to be dis­cussed dur­ing the ear­ly years of the repub­lic. In oth­er words, as Ayşe Sak­tan­ber describes in her book “Liv­ing Islam: Women, Reli­gion and the Politi­ciza­tion of Cul­ture in Turkey”, the politi­cians of the young repub­lic had to nego­ti­ate the sta­tus of the ‘mod­ern’ woman with a tra­di­tion­al­ly con­ser­v­a­tive society.

March 8 demon­stra­tion in Istan­bul (pho­to: engin(art))

Sec­u­lar­ism was the key mot­to and posi­tion­ing of women with­in this mot­to was obvi­ous­ly a chal­lenge. Here, the notion of ‘nation­al­ism’ played a bal­anc­ing role between mod­ern and tra­di­tion­al. While Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the Turk­ish Repub­lic and the com­man­der of the Inde­pen­dence War, was propos­ing the reforms con­cern­ing women, he empha­sized the hero­ic role played by women dur­ing the Inde­pen­dence War, under­ly­ing the fact that women share a sig­nif­i­cant part in the inde­pen­dence of the coun­try and deserve equal rights with men (Par­la, 2001, pp.71–75).

This image of the nationalist/patriotic woman was not tra­di­tion­al and back­ward-look­ing in terms of appear­ance and she would not stay at home but par­tic­i­pate in the pub­lic sphere and serve the mod­ern­iza­tion of the nation. But at the same time she would be care­ful about her hon­our and chasti­ty. In oth­er words, the patri­ot­ic mod­ern cit­i­zen iden­ti­ty lim­it­ed the expe­ri­ence and the expres­sion of a dis­tinc­tive female sex­u­al­i­ty, Par­la explains. This can be seen as anoth­er type of bound­aries set in front of women. It sounds like a pre­con­di­tion which offers women to enjoy the pub­lic domain but nev­er for­get the val­ues and norms attached to her sexuality.

Accord­ing to a report pub­lished by Euro­pean Sta­bil­i­ty Ini­tia­tive in 2007, Turkey has its first “woman rev­o­lu­tion” dur­ing this mod­ern­iza­tion process because of the reforms men­tioned above. 

The report states that cur­rent­ly Turkey is going through its “sec­ond wom­en’s rev­o­lu­tion” since 2001 with the con­sti­tu­tion­al changes with­in the Civ­il and Penal Code. In order to under­stand this ‘sec­ond rev­o­lu­tion’, we have to take a brief look at the devel­op­ment of the fem­i­nist move­ment in Turkey. 

Organized feminism boosted after military coup

Undoubt­ed­ly, the voic­es of the 1968 gen­er­a­tion were heard in Turkey as well and dif­fer­ent groups of peo­ple were mobi­liz­ing par­al­lel to the world wide iden­ti­ty move­ments in the 1970s. It was the Pro­gres­sive Women’s Orga­ni­za­tion which was effec­tive in vocal­iz­ing pri­mar­i­ly the con­di­tions of the work­ing-class women in Turkey, accord­ing to Tekeli. 

The orga­ni­za­tion and oth­er new fem­i­nist ini­ta­tives were sharply silenced when the mil­i­tary regime came into pow­er on Sep­tem­ber 12, 1980. Around 650,000 peo­ple were detained, 230,000 peo­ple tri­aled, 50 exe­cut­ed, and 14,000 stripped of their Turk­ish cit­i­zen­ship. All polit­i­cal par­ties, unions and foun­da­tions were closed.

After the coup, the fem­i­nist move­ment gained a new per­spec­tive and accel­er­a­tion. Nilufer Timisi and Meltem Gevrek, who were both part of that move­ment, define the main fea­tures of the 1980s as “Gain­ing strength” and “Con­scious­ness Rais­ing” in their arti­cle. The con­scious­ness rais­ing groups cen­tered around neigh­bor­hoods con­sti­tut­ed the very basics of an orga­nized move­ment. Gevrek and Timisi talk about how women began to meet week­ly at each oth­er’s hous­es, and sim­ply shared their dai­ly expe­ri­ences. The act of ques­tion­ing the wider sys­tem took its root from ques­tion­ing these local expe­ri­ences. Find­ing com­mon­al­i­ties between each other’s sto­ries helped those groups of women accu­mu­late the nec­es­sary knowl­edge and trig­gered their desire to see the wider picture. 

This for­ma­tion, how­ev­er, was not uni­tary as it pri­mar­i­ly fol­lowed the Kemal­ist tra­di­tion and turned the Mus­lim and veiled woman into the Oth­er, see­ing them as “back­ward” and “non-mod­ern”, as Hilal Ozcetin argues in one of her works. The polar­iza­tion between the sec­u­lar and the reli­gious left many women out­side of the move­ment. How­ev­er, the main­stream fem­i­nist move­ment man­aged to press the State to change the sex­ist pat­terns of the 1926 Civ­il Code which gave hus­bands the priv­i­leged posi­tion as the head of the house­hold, and favored the man con­cern­ing prop­er­ty own­er­ship dur­ing mar­riage and divorce (Teke­li, 2006, p.195).

Women’s legal rights improve, but discrimination persists

Lots of cam­paigns have been launched and The Civ­il Code was reformed dur­ing 2001. Accord­ing­ly, any sex­u­al assault towards women is now tak­en into con­sid­er­a­tion under the code ‘Felonies against Indi­vid­u­als’ instead of ‘Felonies against Pub­lic Decen­cy and Fam­i­ly Order’ as it was before. Besides, equal prop­er­ty own­er­ship rights con­cern­ing divorce and mar­riage are legal­ly ensured by the reforms. Yet, the lat­est gov­ern­men­tal sta­tis­tics shows that there is still a long way to go for women before they achieve equal sta­tus to men in Turkey.

In Feb­ru­ary 2010, the Prime Min­istry Direc­torate Gen­er­al on the Sta­tus of Women (KSGM) pub­lished the most recent sta­tis­tics on the labour and polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion of women in Turkey (pdf, in Turkish). 

March 8 demon­stra­tion in Istan­bul (pho­to: engin(art))

Accord­ing to the report, the labour force par­tic­i­pa­tion of women has been decreas­ing dur­ing the last decade. In 1990, 34,1 per­cent of the total labour force was occu­pied by women, how­ev­er, this num­ber decreased to 26,9 per­cent dur­ing 2002, and to 24,5 per­cent in 2008. This num­ber is very low as 43 per cent of the uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents are female. Wom­en’s polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion is rel­a­tive­ly low in the coun­try as there are only 50 women deputies in the Turk­ish Par­lia­ment which con­sists of 550 seats. KSGM’s report also com­pris­es num­bers about the phys­i­cal vio­lence against women. It is stat­ed that 38 per cent of urban and 43 per cent of rur­al women are sub­ject­ed to phys­i­cal vio­lence in Turkey.

Uniting the Diversity

The offi­cial sta­tis­tics regard­ing women’s sta­tus in Turkey is quite super­fi­cial and over­look the diver­si­ty among women. This diver­si­ty has been kept obscure even with­in the fem­i­nist move­ment for a long time. Its agen­da was so much occu­pied by the dom­i­nance of patri­archy that it did not pay enough con­sid­er­a­tion to the merg­ing of patri­archy with the notions of nation­al­ism, reli­gion, and heterosexism. 

What is new about this new­ly emerg­ing fem­i­nist move­ment that we have seen on the streets of Ankara and Istan­bul is the fact that they are able to unite dif­fer­ent groups of women by eras­ing the ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences among them. In this sense, for me, they form the most sub­ver­sive fist against patri­archy. This new group of peo­ple are able to see all the facets of patri­archy which con­straints the lives of a Kur­dish woman, sec­u­lar woman, veiled woman and les­bian woman despite the dif­fer­ences in terms of the degree of that oppres­sion. That does not mean that the dif­fer­ences among women are intend­ed to be neglect­ed, but a com­mon ground is found to act as a whole. I am sure that those women’s ini­tia­tives, which form the big­ger plat­form, do have a sep­a­rate and autonomous agen­da that they fol­low for their own strug­gle. They are, how­ev­er, able to cre­ate one ‘mul­ti­vo­cal’ body of action dur­ing mass demon­stra­tions, like they did on the 8th of March. 

A trans­sex­u­al woman in the March 8 cel­e­bra­tions in Istan­bul. The ban­ner says: — Les­bian, Gay, Bisex­u­al, Trans­ves­tite, Trans­sex­u­al Women are walk­ing in the path opened by the resist­ing TEKEL Work­ers. (Tekel is a for­mer state enter­prise in the tobac­co and alco­holic bev­er­age sec­tor that closed down their fac­to­ry and left many work­ers unem­ployed). (pho­to: engin(art))

It is pos­si­ble to trace their uni­tary under­stand­ing in their slo­gans. They shout­ed “Smash sex­u­al, nation­al, class-based exploita­tion” and “The world would shake if women were free”. Undoubt­ed­ly, there are orga­ni­za­tions who do not want to inte­grate a veiled woman into them. Some women’s orga­ni­za­tions nev­er let the les­bians talk, argu­ing that the homo­sex­u­als’ turn has not come yet. Hence, what I have writ­ten about this plat­form might sound a lit­tle bit utopi­an as many peo­ple pre­fer to look at this new emerg­ing group as ‘dream­ers’. For me, they are the fore­run­ner of a new epoch. “Anoth­er world is not only pos­si­ble, she is on her way. On a qui­et day, I can hear her breath­ing” says Arund­hati Roy describ­ing the new social move­ments that unite many dif­fer­ent groups against the destruc­tive forces of glob­al­iza­tion. Con­cern­ing the new fem­i­nist move­ment in Turkey, I would like to believe that anoth­er world is pos­si­ble also.

References and further reading

Bildiri­ci, F.(07.03.2010). Escin­sel­lik Hastalık, Tedavil Edilmeli, Retrieved 08.03.2010, from http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/pazar/14031207.asp?gid=59

Euro­pean Sta­bil­i­ty Ini­tia­tive (2007). İki­nci Kadın Devri­mi: Fem­i­nizm, Islam ve Turkiye Demokra­sisinin Olgunlasmasi.Retrieved 09.03.2010, from http://www.esiweb.org/pdf/esi_document_id_91.pdf

KSGM (2010). The Sta­tus of Women in Turkey. Retrieved 03.03.2010, from http://www.ksgm.gov.tr/Pdf/tr_de_kadinin_durumu_subat_2010.pdf

Nilüfer, T., & Meltem, G. (2002). 1980’ler Türkiye­si’nde Fem­i­nist Hareket: Ankara Cevre­si In B. Aksu & G. Ase­na (Eds.), 90’larda Türkiye’de Fem­i­nizm. Istan­bul: Iletisim.

Ozcetin, H. (2009). ‘Break­ing the Silence’: The Reli­gious Mus­lim Women’s Move­ment in Turkey. Jour­nal of Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Stud­ies 11(1), 106–119.

Par­la, A. (2001). The ‘Hon­or’ of the State: Vir­gin­i­ty Exam­i­na­tions in Turkey. Fem­i­nist Stud­ies 27(1), 65–89.

Sak­tan­ber, A. (2002). Liv­ing Islam: Women, Reli­gion and the Politi­ciza­tion of Cul­ture in Turkey. Lon­don: I.B.Tauris.

Teke­li, Şirin (2006). The Turk­ish Women’s Move­ment: A Brief His­to­ry of Suc­cess. In Quaderns de la Mediter­rà­nia, n. 7, 2006. 193–197.

Sev­er­al authors have ana­lyzed Turkey’s mod­ern­iza­tion process. Here is a selec­tion for fur­ther reading: 

Abadan-Unat, N. (1978). The Mod­ern­iza­tion of Turk­ish Women Mid­dle East Jour­nal, 32(3), 291–306 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/4325769)

Ahmad, F. (1993). The mak­ing of mod­ern Turkey: Lon­don : Routledge.

White, J. B. (2003). State Fem­i­nism, Mod­ern­iza­tion, and the Turk­ish Repub­li­can Woman NWSA Jour­nal, 15(3), 145–159.(http://www.jstor.org/stable/4317014)







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